Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Irrelevant? Or bureaucratic abuse?

A row rages as to whether Ged Fitzgerald, Liverpool's Returning Officer should have been able to dictate to Mayoral candidates as to the content of their "leaflets".

When I say leaflets, really it is a small brochure, published by the Council, paid for with tax payers money, and distributed by the council, allotting two pages to each candidate to talk about what kind of a Mayor they would be if elected. In General and European elections, candidates are given a free delivery of one leaflet (although they have to pay for the design and print themselves), courtesy of the state, and I think I am right in saying the content is checked by someone attached to the Post Office on behalf of the state, before they are sent.  This is presumably an equivalency.

This brochure is not the same thing as the leaflets you pay for yourself and post through letterboxes yourself. The Returning Office has no power over those really. If you get something wrong you will either be sued by an opponent or visited by the police.

Ged asked Tony Mulhearn and Steve Radford to make small changes to their leaflets as he said the content fell foul of electoral commission rules through being "irrelevant".

This has been primarily contentious because one of those "irrelevant" elements was a salvo against Liverpool Direct, the council's joint venture with British Telecom. There are those who have suggested that a conflict of interest might exist with the Returning Officer in this matter. Another involved the NHS, which apparently is nothing to do with Local Government. I am not sure what the Adult Social Care and Health Select Committee would make of that, or the Drug and Alcohol Team, the plans for Public Health in the Localism Bill, etc....

There are those arguing vehemently, that the Returning Officer should have just published what people gave him, and if the content was irrelevant, poor or annoying, then the voters would have been able to vote accordingly!

That sounds fine, until you realise that there was a potential for the BNP or the NF to write stuff about immigration, or homophobia etc, which would have offended everyone in the city, at the tax payers expense. And the row then would have been immense! How dare the council pay for this disgraceful propoganda, people would have said.

However, in either case, left or right, generally I am not in favour of censorship, I think the public are much more sensible than people give them credit for and will vote accordingly. So, far be it from me to upset the Returning Officer, being an Agent and all, but I think he should have printed whatever he was given.

Finally, as an aside, I do think that people should restrain themselves from criticising The Chief Executive, as this is not his role in this affair. We have to have a Returning Officer and traditionally he is the Chief Executive, but that doesn't mean that the job is done with a CEO hat on.

Edit: Having now got a copy of the brochure in my hand, I see that the BNP candidate has included a quote from a so called Reverend, saying "we need to protect our national identity from the threat of Islam".
Now if anything was deserving of censorship, that was. If anything was "irrelevant" (and what a curious word the Electoral Commission have used there), then this was. I am curious that this was allowed to stay while the suggesting that Government had plans to infest the NHS with private companies, was not.

So there are two controversial issues here, one is about the Electoral Commission allowing for Returning Officers to censor material and the other is around the skill of those Returning Officers to manage that censorship.

I remain convinced that all material should have been published and that the Electoral Commission was wrong to invite ROs to interfere. We have the same problem with council motions and debates too. Some motions are not accepted as they are not relevant to local government, while others are allowed, which plainly are national or european matters. And of course we are not allowed to use the name "ConDem" of this Government whilst in the Town Hall, the only phrase, so far as I know that is banned.

Free speech, it is the only way. Let the people decide which voice they listen to.


Howard Winik said...

Hi Louise. I agree with you on this. Those who oversee the production of campaign material for election candidates should generally require that the contents are lawful, decent and accurate. In this case, the returning officer has acted on behalf of the public and, in one instance, appears to have censured a comment because he felt it described a council agency in what some may have considered impolite terms. As you say, in a democratic process, the public would normally form their own view and, personally, I do not think that Ged Fitzgerald should have intervened here. Regarding inferences about the NHS, I find it hard to see how the subject can be considered irrelevant and, again, the public can form their own opinion on whether the points raised are material. As you know, the Standards Committee always felt that powers to interfere with political statements, be they in leaflets, letters, or any other form, should be used very sparingly. I still hold that view.

Stuart Wilks-Heeg said...

Hi Louise - a thoughtful and balanced piece. Just a small, but important, technical point. The 'rules' about election addresses in mayoral contests are derived from the legislation passed by Parliament, not from the guidance produced by the Electoral Commission. The legislation in question is the Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007. My view is that the wording in the legislation is too vague and needs urgent clarification before the next set of mayoral elections.

Louise Baldock said...

Thanks Stuart, I am linking to your interesting blog on the matter, here

Howard Winik said...

I'm not sure that revised legislation would solve an issue like this. Political comments will always be open to interpretation and it is right that a returning officer should have some power to intervene in respect of literature produced at public expense, eg where one candidate makes a comment about another which is patently untrue. It is the way in which statutory discretion is used which needs to be looked at and it's effect on democracy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Louise, well done on an inteligent piece. However, the way Ged Fitzgerald acts sometimes towards Joe Anderson you would think he was his election agent.